Wisconsin lawmakers considering changing the way 'flagged officers' are recruited

Nearly 200 "flagged officers" have found work at new agencies
Posted: 6:03 AM, Sep 16, 2021
Updated: 2021-09-16 23:33:51-04
milwaukee police

MILWAUKEE — Since 2016, the Wisconsin Department of Justice has kept a list of officers who have been fired for cause, or quit in the middle of an investigation or in lieu of termination, commonly referred to as the "flagged officers" list.

The same list tracks if those officers find work at another agency. The I-Team found 198 "flagged" officers are on the job. However, the list does not tell the entire story.

The list was designed to be a tool to let agencies know if someone they are recruiting has been fired or quit before they could be hired at another agency.

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For example, Michael Mattioli, the former Milwaukee Police officer who is accused of strangling Joel Acevedo to death, is simply listed as "resigned in lieu of termination," on the flagged officers list.

Steven Wagner, the Director of Training and Standards Bureau with the state DOJ, says the list is a good tool for agencies trying to make smart hiring decisions, but not all the information is there.

"Just because an officer is a red flag does not mean that they're a bad officer," Wagner said. "It just means that perhaps they were a bad fit."

Any of the officers could legally be rehired as police officers in the state of Wisconsin, and the list does not prevent them from finding work.

"That would be up to the agency to look at that officer's background," Wagner said. "During the background process to find out exactly why they're red flag. We don't hold that data. We just hold the flag."

In order to keep a fired police officer from finding a new job in the state, they have to be decertified by the Law Enforcement Standards Board (LESB), a panel of civilians and law enforcement professionals who make training and certification decisions in the state of Wisconsin.

Decertifications are down in the last three years, Wagner says, in part due to the pandemic. From 2016 to 2021, 48 officers have been decertified. More recently, there were 9 decertifications in 2019, none in 2020 and two so far this year. One additional decertification was recommended in the board's last meeting on Sept. 1.

The two officers decertified in 2021 both spent time behind bars. Former Milwaukee County Sheriff's Deputy Joel Streicher was sentenced to six months in jail for negligent homicide, after killing a driver he crashed into while running a red light.

The other, former Jefferson County Sheriff's Deputy Janelle Gericke, was convicted on three felony burglary charges and sentenced to two years in prison, LESB records indicate.

The list of flagged officers finding work has increased as well. Of the almost 200 flagged officers who are currently working, more than half, 106, were hired between 2019 and 2021.

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State law dictates how an officer can be decertified. Currently, if an officer is terminated, they can be considered for decertification by the LESB. Other factors that could lead to a decertification include a felony conviction or a conviction of a crime that could be considered a felony in Wisconsin. A domestic violence misdemeanor can also be considered grounds for decertification, as well as any lapse in the state-required training to remain a certified law enforcement officer.

Wagner's bureau makes recommendations to the LESB, and the board makes the final determination.

"They are holding law enforcement, jail officers and secure juvenile detention officers to a very high standard, and I think if you look around in the country, it's one of the highest standards in the country," Wagner said.

Josh Parker, senior staff attorney for the Policing Project at New York University School of Law, studies policies and standards boards like the LESB in other states and helps determine best practices. He said some of Wisconsin's laws are narrow.

"Wisconsin statute for decertification is entirely permissive," Parker said. "It says that the board 'may' decertify an officer who's convicted of a felony."

Parker points out if an officer avoids a felony conviction, they could still keep their job under Wisconsin's law.

As law enforcement agencies across the state struggle to hire police officers, he's concerned more names on the flagged list could end up with new jobs.

"It is generally referred to as the wandering officer problem," Parker said.

Particularly with smaller agencies with less resources to recruit, who may find a candidate with years of experience alluring, despite being flagged.

"Those agencies may not have tons and tons of qualified applicants, so they settle for someone who's been fired and has all of these red flags," Parker said.

Wagner said in order to help cover the gaps in the flagged officers list, lawmakers have introduced a proposal to require agencies to create personnel files on its officers, and share those files with any agency that may be considering that officer for employment in the future.

The plan would also do away with non-disclosure agreements as part of an agreed termination.

"An officer can't just get a sum of money to walk away and everybody's happy and smiley and all good comments about their work performance, can't do that anymore," Wagner said. "We're talking about transparency."

It's the kind of legislation Parker said is in line with best practices he's seen around the country.

"If you leave it up to the agencies, which is what Wisconsin currently does, you're going to get wildly varying practices across agencies and it's just not fair to the people who live in a jurisdiction that has an agency that's more lax," Parker said.

Parker adds if it's going to be successfully executed, the legislation should include some sort of penalty for agencies that don't comply.

The proposal also would include officers who resigned in lieu of termination as an additional reason for the board to consider decertification.

The bill has passed the state Assembly, and is awaiting a vote in the Senate.

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